Famous Last Words: Adoni-Bezek, Zebah and Zalmunna, Agag

Having spoken previously about the last words of some of the more noble personages in the Bible [1], let us now follow the pattern established when talking about Sisera [2] and talk about three of the villainous people of the Bible. When we think of the way that people die, it is worthwhile to reflect upon the good as well as the bad examples when it comes to how to face death. The three examples discussed here are somewhat similar in that they are among the most notable cases where the Bible describes the deaths of wicked people, although none of these people (except perhaps Agag) could be considered as famous. Nevertheless, their last words are notable and memorable when it comes to understanding the Bible as well as even contemporary geopolitical difficulties in the Middle East, as surprising as that may seem. Let us therefore look at the examples of Adoni-Bezek, Zebah and Zalmunna, and Agag to see what wit and wisdom they spoke when they faced their death at the hands of the children of Israel.

Adoni-Bezek

Adoni-Bezek is perhaps one of the most obscure people in the Bible, but he is nonetheless worth discussing, not least because his death was a gruesome one but was faced with a certain amount of dignity and acceptance. All that we know about Adoni-Bezek we know from Judges 1:1-7, which reads as follows: “Now after the death of Joshua it came to pass that the children of Israel asked the Lord, saying, “Who shall be first to go up for us against the Canaanites to fight against them?” And the Lord said, “Judah shall go up. Indeed, I have delivered the land into his hand.” So Judah said to Simeon his brother, “Come up with me to my allotted territory, that we may fight against the Canaanites; and I will likewise go with you to your allotted territory.” And Simeon went up with him. Then Judah went up, and the Lord delivered the Canaanites and the Perizzites into their hand, and they killed ten thousand men at Bezek. And they found Adoni-Bezek in Bezek, and fought against him; and they defeated the Canaanites and the Perizzites. Then Adoni-Bezek fled, and they pursued him and caught him and cut off his thumbs and big toes. And Adoni-Bezek said, “Seventy kings with their thumbs and big toes cut off used to gather scraps under my table; as I have done, so God has repaid me.” Then they brought him to Jerusalem, and there he died.”

There are a few aspects of this particular story that are intriguing. Half of the tale is devoted to the ad hoc coalitions being developed between Judah and Simeon to clear out the land that had been allotted to them. By the time we meet Adoni-Bezek, the “Lord of Bezek,” which sounds more like a title than a personal name, he is fleeing from the total defeat of his army and is captured and mutilated. While one might sympathize with a mutilated leader and think that the Israelites were a harsh and barbaric people, the fact that this king had mutilated seventy kings in the same way suggests that he richly earned the treatment he received, and he replies with the understanding that he was treated justly. One wonders how it was that this mutilation was chosen, as it was not a commonly recorded matter in the scriptures. It is quite possible that the children of Israel chose a punishment that fit the crime after having been informed of his previous actions through some of the members of their coalition. This is an example where having some internal support among the various outsiders and exploited classes of the Canaanites might explain for the apparent knowledge that the people of Judah and Canaan had of Adoni-Bezek’s activities, unless they had first seen some of the mutilated kings after winning their victory and then, horrified, enacted the same punishment on the captured ruler, who died as a result of his wounds soon thereafter. His last words reflect an acceptance of God’s judgment for his misdeeds, even if they do not reflect repentance for a life of rulership spent in wickedness.

Zebah and Zalmunna

We read about Zebah and Zalmunna in Judges 8:1-21, as fugitive Midianite leaders who try to escape but are cornered at Karbor and captured. After the victory of Gibeon, his pursuit of these fugitive princes is mysterious, at least at first, and his requests at Succoth and Penuel for assistance to his strike force are met with derision, which is later brought on their own heads in retribution. Indeed, this whole passage is about retribution. It is only once Zebah and Zalmunna, whose names are probably Hebrew puns based on the meanings of the two words in Hebrew, since Zebah means “sacrifice” or “victim” and Zalmunna means “protection denied.” We find out why this protection is denied in Judges 8:18-21: “And he [Gideon] said to Zebah and Zalmunna, “What kind of men were they whom you killed at Tabor?” So they answered, “As you are, so were they; each one resembled the son of a king.” Then he said, “They were my brothers, the sons of my mother. As the Lord lives, if you had let them live, I would not kill you.” And he said to Jether his firstborn, “Rise, kill them!” But the youth would not draw his sword, for he was afraid, because he was still a youth. So Zebah and Zalmunna said, “Rise yourself, and kill us; for as a man is, so is his strength.” So Gideon arose and killed Zebah and Zalmunna, and took the crescent ornaments that were on their camels’ necks.”

Here we see a striking detail that had not been included earlier. When the oppression of the Israelites by the Midianites is mentioned in Judges 6, we do not see all of the incidents that include that oppression, and the difference between the timid and fearful Gideon who leads a small group of Israelites against a massive Midianite force and the vastly more fierce Gideon who pursues his own personal agenda is remarkably telling. The incident reminds us that people are far more ferocious in engaging in their own blood feuds and vendettas than they are in fighting the Eternal’s battles, and it also reminds us of the cycles of violence and retribution that continue to plague the Middle East, where each death creates an obligation for vengeance upon surviving relatives, until all of the people who could avenge are no longer living. Beyond this, though, it is striking that there is no attempt among the Midianite princes, who clearly know that a man who hunted them deep into the desert is not going to have mercy on them, to beg or plead for mercy, but rather the two princes taunt him when his eldest son shows himself unable to step up to the man’s task of delivering rough justice. This fear on the part of Jether is a bit telling, as after the death of Gideon, Jether is one of the victims among Gideon’s children at the bloodthirsty violence of his half-brother Abimelech. And so the violence goes on and on, where people feel the need to prove their manhood through violence against others, for to turn the other cheek is to lose face and be beneath dignity and respect in one’s society.

Agag

The death of Agag is perhaps the most famous of the lot. The reason for this has to do with context. The beginning of Judges is seldom read, since there are no famous judges discussed in that section, and Gideon’s private vendetta against the Midianite princes is not nearly as famous as his laying out of a fleece or threshing wheat in a winepress, but the death of Agag occurred at the decisive moment where Saul is rejected as king, and is therefore a much better known incident. Additionally, Agag’s death had some potential long-term consequences that extended centuries beyond the incident, all the way to the book of Esther, if Haman’s identity as an Amalekite, and the ancestry of Mordecai and Esther as Benjaminites are significant, as appears likely. We see Agag’s highly ironic final words in 1 Samuel 15:30-33, which reads: “Then he [Saul] said, “I have sinned; yet honor me now, please, before the elders of my people and before Israel, and return with me, that I may worship the Lord your God.” So Samuel turned back after Saul, and Saul worshipped the Lord. Then Samuel said, “Bring Agag king of the Amalekites here to me.” So Agag came to him cautiously. And Agag said, “Surely the bitterness of death is past.” But Samuel said, “As your sword has made women childless, so shall your mother be childless among women.” And Samuel hacked Agag in pieces before the Lord in Gilgal.”

Here again we see the retributive cycle of violence. God had sworn to Israel, all the way back in Exodus 17 [3], that they would have warfare with Amalek for all time, and so it has been. Saul had been told to exterminate the Amalekites, but he only destroyed what was worthless and kept what was good. Agag appeared to be weary of Samuel, who was clearly not the sort of man to be bribed as Saul was, but his last words are among the more ironic in scripture, for just after saying “Surely the bitterness of death is past” he is given a particularly brutal death by the prophet of God before the elders and leaders of Israel, as a reminder of the commandment that had been given that Saul had disobeyed. It is intriguing in this light that when the feud between Israel and Amalek continues in the book of Esther that the feud is between the relatives of Saul and the relatives of Agag, and that Samuel’s descendants were not involved. Esther, in this light, can be seen as having the air of unfinished business, the reminder that had their ancestor done what he was supposed to do that they would not have faced the threat of destruction at the hands of wicked Haman. The lesson is worth reflecting on, as there is no time so long as we are mortal human beings in a world full of wickedness where the bitterness of death is past, until we are resurrected into eternal life at the return of Jesus Christ. Until that time comes, we live in a world full of evil, and must never forget it.

[1] See, for example:

https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2016/01/19/famous-last-words-jacob/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2016/01/19/famous-last-words-joseph/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2016/03/23/famous-last-words-moses/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2016/03/31/famous-last-words-joshua

[2] https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2016/04/02/famous-last-words-sisera/

[3] You Shall Have War Against Amalek

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
This entry was posted in Bible, Biblical History, Christianity, History, Musings and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Famous Last Words: Adoni-Bezek, Zebah and Zalmunna, Agag

  1. Pingback: Book Review: All The Men Of The Bible | Edge Induced Cohesion

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